Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
This author spent much of last month in Washington DC, mainly talking to a wide variety of North Korea watchers, as I often do at that time of year.
Following what has become an established tradition, I would like to share with NK News readers some impressions of the current mood in the capital of the great and mighty American Empire.
Of course, as usual, I have to be careful with names and, sometimes, deliberately nebulous. Nonetheless, I think, even a short sketch of the current state of affairs will be of some use to our readers.
As our readers may remember, senior North Korean diplomats and officials, including Kim Jong Un himself, spent much of last year saying that in 2020 they would have to go some unspecified “new way” if the Americans remained stubborn and refused to give the North Koreans the concessions they wanted.
While such remarks were ambiguous, they were universally interpreted as a sign that North Korea intended to switch back to its trademark brinkmanship mood.
In the final days of 2019, a number of U.S. diplomats and military officials were put on high alert
North Korea, observers reasoned, would again do what it has always done: manufacture a crisis in order to be eventually rewarded for its willingness to return to the pre-crisis status quo.
Such expectations were nearly universal, not only among the layman North Korea watchers but among government officials as well. My sources told me that in the final days of 2019, a number of U.S. diplomats and military officials were put on high alert, expecting some North Korean provocation (perhaps an ICBM launch) to happen any moment.
The administration even made plans for how such an escalation should be dealt with. These plans, however, were not about mounting a devastating counterstrike, but rather about keeping the situation under control.
However, these plans were not carried through since, as all of us know, nothing actually happened in early January. North Koreans threatened to send the U.S. a “Christmas present” if Washington kept misbehaving. But such a present was never delivered.
Why? The majority view in Washington is that the crisis was likely averted by quiet, but decisive, Chinese intervention. For decades, North Korea has never been as dependent on China – or, for that matter, any other foreign power – as it is now. In essence, it is China which keeps the regime afloat. Many experts believe that, under these circumstances, Chinese pressure could not be ignored.
It’s widely suspected in expert circles in Washington that China, whose leaders don’t want to deal with the consequences of yet another acute crisis in Northeast Asia, warned the North Koreans that they should remain quiet – and the North Koreans, this time, decided to be obedient.
Some people also emphasize that the assassination of General Soleimani in Baghdad on January 4 had an additional but powerful impact on the state of mind of the North Korean leaders. This assassination clearly demonstrated that the U.S. President is not merely a composer of bellicose tweets, as many began to suspect, but a person who can deliver deadly strikes when he considers it necessary.
There is little doubt that the decision to deescalate was made by the North Korean leaders before General Soleimani’s assassination, but, as many people in Washington believe, the sorry fate of the Iranian general further reinforced Pyongyang’s reluctance to escalate tensions.
Where does it all leave us now? For the majority of the U.S. political class, the unexpected outbreak of tranquility on the Korean peninsula is good news. All my contacts agreed that, in recent weeks, interest in Korea has declined dramatically. Most attention is now given to the Middle East and, of course, to the impeachment saga in Washington DC.
It’s quite clear that the Trump administration is happy with this state of affairs. Many observers agree that the actual task of the State Department, under the wise guidance of Secretary Mike Pompeo, is to make sure that nothing dramatic happens on the Korean peninsula until after November’s presidential elections.
For the majority of the U.S. political class, the unexpected outbreak of tranquility on the Korean peninsula is good news
If the North Koreans remain relatively quiet till late fall, Donald Trump, the presidential candidate, will be able to present this quietness as yet another proof of his unique skills as a deal maker and negotiator.
He will be able to tell the American voters that North Korea, which used to launch ICBMs and test nuclear weapons under “that weakling Obama,” now, following his brilliant diplomacy, decided to behave themselves and are presumably slowly moving towards denuclearization.
In other words, the quietness in Korea will help Candidate Trump present the situation there as “solved,” and this message is likely to be swallowed by the vast majority of voters.
Of course, such a rosy picture would be misleading. Right now, nearly all American experts have finally realized what they frankly should have realized perhaps 15 years ago: that North Korean denuclearization is not going to happen and the U.S. will have to learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea for a long time.
However, nobody counts on the average voter’s ability to understand this. As long as North Korea does not get itself on the front pages of newspapers, it will be good for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign – and this fact is well understood in Trump’s camp.
Interestingly enough, this time I noticed some signs that more and more people outside the narrow circles of Pyongyang watchers are beginning to understand the hopelessly utopian nature of the “denuclearization dream.”
No mainstream politician would rush to admit the obvious and say that North Korea is going to remain nuclear for decades to come – even though experts have finally realized this. However, there are signs that awareness of this unpleasant fact is gradually getting inroads into more and more heads on Capitol Hill.
But will Donald Trump’s and Mike Pompeo’s dreams actually come true? Will Pyongyang stay silent?
This is a difficult question, on which opinions are clearly divided. The significant majority of the North Korea watchers in Washington believe that there is a good chance that things will work out exactly in the way Donald Trump wants.
They believe that the North Koreans have no reason to create obstacles to Trump’s reelection since they see him as a person who, in spite of being potentially highly dangerous, can also deliver them a deal that would be unthinkable for a more conventional president.
Pessimistic minority analysts believe that Kim Jong Un has given up all hopes of reaching a meaningful agreement with the United States
On top of that, they are probably afraid to provoke his wrath, ever mindful about the sorry fate of General Soleimani. Some observers indeed warn that Donald Trump, if faced with North Korean provocation, will see it not merely as yet another a frustrating annoyance on his campaign trail, but as an act of personal betrayal. In such a case the President can be violent indeed, as the sorry fate of late Quds commander has demonstrated to us recently.
Therefore, among North Korea watchers in Washington, the majority believe that we are likely to see a rather extended period of tranquility. It does not mean that the North Koreans will remain completely still. Most likely, they will occasionally launch short-range and even mid-range missiles. It’s also possible that they will test some submarine-based missiles (SLBM).
However, such tests can be easily dismissed by the U.S. administration as “relatively insignificant” and definitely of little concern for the United States, since the range of the tested delivery systems is well below that which is needed to hit American soil. Therefore, such minor provocations can, and probably will be, safely ignored by the U.S. administration whose main political interest now is to downplay all bad news coming from Korea.
Apart from the above-mentioned majority view, there is another “minority view.” This view is far more pessimistic. It’s remarkable that people who see the world’s future in such a grim light are overwhelmingly people who, in the past, worked for the intel community.
These pessimistic minority analysts believe that Kim Jong Un has given up all hopes of reaching a meaningful agreement with the United States and has chosen to go full speed ahead towards his old goal of, so to say, “complete and irreversible nuclearization” — the development and deployment of nuclear weapons and delivery systems that can definitely hit U.S. territory.
The pessimists believe that the ICBM tests have not been canceled, but merely postponed. In order to have deployable long-range nuclear force, North Koreans still have to do a lot of testing – and, pessimists believe, this testing will take place in the near future.
Perhaps the delay happened exactly because North Koreans would like to deliver to the Americans an election campaign present instead of the Christmas present they once threatened.
It’s also possible that the reasons for the delay are purely technical: North Korean rocket scientists might need more time to sort out some unexpected problems.
At any rate, the pessimists believe that at some point in spring, or, more likely, summer, the North Koreans will undertake some dramatic actions, including, most likely, an ICBM test. Perhaps this time they will not use a lofted trajectory and instead aim their ICBM to some point in the Southern Pacific or elsewhere, thus both testing and demonstrating their new capabilities.
One of the good things about North Korea watching is that we usually learn whose predictions are correct and whose predictions are wrong within a relatively short period of time.
By late fall, it will be clear whose predictions are correct: those of the pessimistic minority or the (relatively) optimistic majority.
However, the general mood is quite clear. Top decision-makers in the U.S. have lost interest in North Korea for the time being. They are quite happy about the current quietness and tranquility, no matter how unstable and fragile it is.
They hope it will last for around a year, until the day when U.S. voters decide who will become the next U.S. President.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.This author spent much of last month in Washington DC, mainly talking to a wide variety of North Korea watchers, as I often do at that time of year.Following what has become an established tradition, I would like to share with NK News readers some impressions of the current mood
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.